For the second year in a row, the 2017 Morris County budget increases taxes by nearly $8 million or 3.4%. What’s worse: there was a major error in the budget presentation.
I served as a Morris County Freeholder from 2013 to 2015 when Morris County taxes actually went down $5 million.
Monmouth County introduced a 2017 county budget without having raised property taxes in 7 years!
So what has gone wrong with Morris County budgets the past two years? Unfortunately, just about everything: taxes up two years in a row totaling $15 million dollars, spending up this year by over $11 million, debt issuance up $3 million, use of surplus (which is like spending from a savings account) up by $1.3 million. In contrast, as a Freeholder and member of the budget committee, we cut county taxes $5 million with zero spending increases while implementing a 6 year $60 million debt reduction policy and increased surplus by $5 million.
It’s pretty simple: when spending and borrowing go up so does your taxes. I am not a professional politician; I have worked in the private sector for over 30 years. I know (and have experienced first-hand) how to reduce spending while actually improving services. The list of what has gone wrong with the county budget and how to correct it includes 4 major items.
First, county spending is up across the board this year by over $11 million, following a similar increase in 2016. All the major departments in county government showed increases, including a 7% increase in administration costs and most significantly increases in salary and benefits of $7.4 million. Instead, county staffing can be reduced without layoffs by finding inefficiencies and not replacing every vacant positions, thus avoiding not only salary costs, but health care and pension payments.
Second, borrowing is up $3 million and even worse the one area of the budget that pays for capital projects directly vs. borrowing, the capital improvement fund, was cut by $500,000. Instead, prioritize spending as we did in 2014 doubling the miles of county roads being repaved and avoid wasteful projects. The county has a sad history of major public works with significant overspending such as a half empty jail, half under-utilized communications center, and a one third vacant nursing home.
Third, the Morris County solar program, started in 2009, will lose over $4 million, on top of a $3.4 million loss in 2016 and a $7 million loss in 2015. This program is well on its way to losing over $20 million in taxpayer money. However the lawyers and consultants who suggested the program all have made good incomes. In my last year as a Freeholder we parted ways with the solar professionals and put an end to any more solar or other energy projects (there was a new proposal to build battery storage!).
Fourth, the use of surplus increases by $1.3 million which helps make up the gap between spending increases of $11 million and taxes up nearly $8 million. Using surplus is like dipping into your savings account or 401k in order to feed your spending habit today. Instead, I used my experience as a manager and CPA to go line by line in the budget and eliminate padded spending accounts, thus reducing the need to use surplus.
The major error in the budget presentation was related to an accounting change in how state aid is distributed to the counties. The budget presentation states the total was $8.6 million, causing a reduction in the budget that was not a real cut in spending, but simply an accounting change. In reality this accounting change was closer to $25 million. Why should you care? By understating the accounting change the net effect was to obscure the fact that spending had actually increased by over $11 million.
With determination and skill property taxes can be lowered. In my term as a Freeholder, Morris County reduced taxes for three years, and now Monmouth County has held taxes to zero for seven years. Unfortunately for the second year in a row the Morris County budget has returned to the all too familiar pattern of increased spending, increased borrowing, and of course increasing property taxes.